It was raining the day my dad took his last breaths. Six weeks prior, Serge Dupin, my crazy, French, red-bandana-wearing, sawdust-covered, dual-language-swearing father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was sixty, and I was a 27 year old who still felt like his little girl in Mary Janes… too young to lose her daddy.
My dad was always such a deep and poetic man, I think if he could have written his own death, it would have been exactly this. He loved the rain. He used to tell us embarrassing stories about how he and our mom loved to “make love” when it rained. So naturally, as the author to his own death, he would have made it rain.
Dad wanted a clean death. One without tubes and machines. A goodbye without doctors and sterile white walls. He didn’t want to be a mess—stuck in a bed, shitting himself. So when there was nothing more the doctors could do, Dad opted for hospice. This choice was the one thing that gave him a sense of control. Cancer stripped most everything from him. Cancer left him with no choice but to die. So he decided that at least he could control how. And, for the most part, Dad truly got his wish. He was never really stuck. He died in his home, staring at his woods, surrounded by his girls as it rained.
“I can’t die without my girls, I just can’t die without my girls,” he told us that day.
The woods glimmered from the rain. The branches, a dark chocolate brown, and the leaves, a neon green. As the rain fell, droplets pulled down on the leaves. My sister, Claire, and I hadn’t really left his side in three days. He never lost consciousness, but he was just so tired and slept most of the day. He was also so uncomfortable and restless. Every 20 minutes he would wake up and need to be lifted up. Like the leaves, something was pulling down on him too.
“Up Up Up,” he would say.
So my sister, a registered nurse, would tie a hospital sheet around his waist. Following her lead, we would stand on either side of him and pull on the sheet to hoist his body further up on the bed. He didn’t have the strength to do it himself anymore. Then, it was too hot, too cold. Up. Fan, no fan, up. Warm washcloth, cold washcloth, up. Oxygen, no oxygen, blanket, no blanket.
There were moments of peace and beauty too. Sometimes we’d catch Dad fishing from his hospice bed. He looked so happy. His hand moved back and forth, just like it would in real life, adjusting the tightness of the rod, pulling it back and forth, trolling.
“I love when I reach for your hand and you catch mine,” he told us. We were there with him.
It was around two o’clock when Bobby arrived. Bobby was my dad’s best friend, and he and his wife feel like second parents to me. Bobby and Doreen were there the first two weeks after the diagnosis, but, naturally, they had returned to their lives for the summer. I don’t remember if we called them, or if they simply arrived, but as the rain continued to fall, it felt closer and closer to the end.
“Bobby….” Serge said in his French accent, as he mustered the strength to smile big. He saw them arrive; he knew they were there. We think he was waiting for Bob.
They said their hellos (or goodbyes, I guess) and headed out to do errands. And then it was just us. Claire, Mom, Dad and me. Mom returned to her computer for a bit, keeping busy was her thing. Avoidance and denial were also her thing.
When death shows up, we tend to become different, more exaggerated versions of ourselves. Me, the fixer, Claire, the caregiver, but our mom, she became the little kid. She always had something else to do, an email to respond to, a phone call to make, an obituary to write…being the busy bee, too busy to deal. The love of her life, whom she met at twenty, during her junior year abroad in France, was dying right in front of us. They spent their lives talking; maybe they were complete and that was ok. Maybe there was nothing left unsaid.
Claire and I gave Dad more morphine, but he was getting so restless. Kicking the covers off, his legs were flailing about. Mom walked by, almost shocked “What in the heck is he doing, why are his legs like that?”
Finally we said, “Mom, come here. You need to sit by Dad, you need to sit with us.”
She had hardly sat with us for days, her soft rebellion against the inevitable We all had our go-to coping mechanisms. It’s as if she knew once she sat down, that would be it. But she could see it in our eyes.
Mom pulled up a chair and it was the three of us by Dad’s side. Claire on his left, Mom on the right, by his head, and I sat next to her, holding his hand. We gave him more morphine and within 3 or 4 minutes Dad said he needed more. He was so uncomfortable. So we grabbed more and gave it to him. The next couple of minutes were such a blur, but through the chaos there was clarity and Mom just cried out.
“Serge, Serge, are there people waiting for you on the other side? Are there people beckoning you to the other side?”
My father looked at her, this time he looked like the little kid. He nodded and said “Yes, yes there are” and then we started calling our their names. “Lauran, Papi, Lea, Jane, Joe.” My dad’s best friend from his 20’s, his father, Lea, my childhood friend who had died so young, my mother’s parents. All of them, Dad said, were waiting for him, calling him over. From the moment we were told his diagnosis until that afternoon was a six week clusterfuck of a hurricane, but at this moment we stood in the eye of the storm.
“Then, go, Serge,” Mom exclaimed, “You can go. Go be with them, we’re ok here, you can go,” she cried. And then my sister Claire and I started crying out “I love you, Dad. We love you Dad. You were the best dad ever, we love you so much, we love you, we love you, we love you, you can go, go be with them, we’re ok here, we love you.” We were all chanting, coaching him through to the other side.
It was like a reverse birth.
And with that, his breathing started to slow down, his body tried to fight it but his mind and soul were ready. His lips began to turn white. We kept telling him we loved him, we were holding his hands. He was not alone. We were walking with him to the other side. “This is it girls, this is it. Look at his lips… he’s going now,” said Mom. He was still breathing at this point, but it was more like a fish out of water breathing in air, it’s gills gasping to survive. His lips kind of puckered, and then his eyes started to close.
“This is it,” Mom said again.
Dad’s breathing got shallow. His soul actually left his body before his body stopped breathing. We could feel it, it was like the body needed to catch up, still fighting for life, even though he was gone. Almost a minute had passed and then suddenly, he took one last big gasp of air. And that was it.
My dad died right in front of me.
His death was beautiful. Surrounded by his three girls, he walked into heaven, holding our hands, into his next chapter. His next adventure. We watched him disappear, leaving behind the physical representation that this world knew as Serge Dupin. As I stared at my dad’s body, I realized it was truly only a costume we wear on this earth. His body lay there, but he was no longer inside.
My dad died a rich man that day, with a savings account full of memories of a beautiful life, surrounded by the loves of his life, his two daughters, and his wife. Once Dad was gone, it was Claire, the nurse and most medically in tune of us all, who could not fathom he had just died.
All of a sudden, “Breathe! Breathe! Breathe! Breathe again,” she cried, “Breathe again!…I’m not ready…..I’m not ready for you to go!” It was as if four years of nursing school were thrown out the window. Suddenly, miracles were possible and medical explanations seemed like bullshit.
“He’s gonna breathe again, I just know it.”
At this point, I was confused. I knew Dad was gone, but my medically trained sister was telling me Dad may breathe again. Then I started to fantasize, maybe he’s not dead?
But he didn’t wake up. The rain continued to fall, but he was gone. We called the hospice nurse and she returned. She listened to Dad’s heart with a stethoscope and I remember still blindly hoping that maybe there was heartbeat. There wasn’t.
He looked so handsome. He was so sick and so skinny, but he looked peaceful. He died with his eyes closed. Sometimes people die with their eyes open and it can look very scary. But Dad died with his eyes closed, and a very slight smile on his face.
Claire and I crawled into to bed with Dad. And we cried in our daddy’s arms. He held us, but he was gone. We laid with him for about an hour, soaking up every minute. Our world had stopped but outside the rain continued to fall. We didn’t want to leave him, if we could lie in that cocoon with him forever we would have. But, the fight was finally over.
Bobby and Doreen returned from running errands. “Serge passed while you were gone,” Mom said, simply.
We laid with Dad until it was time to call the people to take him away. We started removing his jewelry and watch. I looked at the bracelet on his wrist. It read, M-A-R-C-E-L, Marcel. It was his father’s name. I began to dread the fight my sister and I would have over who got to keep it. Because sisters are still sisters, even when their dad is dying. But she removed it from his wrist and said, “This is yours. Dad said, ‘Do not fight. The bracelet is Sophie’s’.” We were the same age that day, or maybe no age at all. There was no older or younger sister. Just two daughters losing their dad, feeling like little girls; and yet, the oldest we ever felt all at the same time.
My dad wanted to be cremated but he told us to make sure to put a penny in his left hand after he died. He always said things like “You should never go anywhere empty-handed, always have something to give….” So at the end, of course, he made sure to tell us “Don’t let me go empty-handed, maybe heaven will charge an admission fee. Promise me you won’t let me go empty-handed.”
A promise is a promise, so there we were trying to figure out a way to get the penny to stay in his left hand. Dad’s hand could no longer grip anything as his strength had left with him.
“Well… we could tape it???” I suggested. Not the best idea I’ve ever had.
“That’s a genius idea!” said my highly educated sister. So, that’s exactly what we did. We took a penny, placed it in his hand and wrapped it over and over again, with Scotch tape. It stayed, and Dad was no longer empty-handed.
When the men arrived to take dad’s body away, we couldn’t watch. In another room, Claire briefed them on the Scotch tape/penny situation, and to make sure that he was cremated with it. We went upstairs. I remembered when they came to take my grandmother away. I was seven. She also died of lung cancer, and I watched them zip her up in a body bag. There’s something about death, when you are little, that is not so permanent. Life didn’t feel so linear back then. I do believe in a God, the universe. I believe in love and I believe in some sort of heaven. I believe there is something more and I believe I will see my dad again. Until that time, my last image wasn’t going to be him in a body bag.
It was raining the day my dad died. I am not the same person I was before that experience with him. When I tell someone we were there when he died I don’t think they quite get the magnitude of that last journey we took together as a family. I am still in disbelief of those last three minutes. But it isn’t hard for me to talk about; I wear it as a badge of honor. I know I am lucky. Not everyone gets this epic of an ending with their loved ones. It was a privilege to be by his side as he took his last breaths. When four of us became three on this earth. And each new day we are getting to know the sadness, the loss, the anger, the grief, and how to fill all of the empty space. And, we are learning how to navigate through a new relationship with my dad. We are learning how to listen to him without our ears. We are learning how to have conversations with him in ways where we don’t need words at all.